Most Haunted Live Summer Solstice 2003 :: Woodchester Mansion

 The day when the power of the sun is at its greatest and the power of the darkness is even more so … when Derek, Yvette and Phil with the Most Haunted team are sent out to unravel the secrets of Woodchester Mansion

Woodchester Mansion

History

The present, incomplete Mansion at Woodchester Park replaced a Georgian country house called Spring Park, which was first built at the beginning of the 17th Century and named for the many springs in the valley. The estate, which had much earlier origins, which included Nympsfield, parts of the parishes of Frocester, Kings Stanley, Avening and Horsley, as well as Woodchester village, and formed part of the land holdings of the second Earl of Ducie. It was put up for sale by them in 1844.

William Leigh, a devout convert to the Roman Catholic church, bought the estate in 1845 for £100,000, moving from his home at Little Aston Hall in Staffordshire. Leigh approached Augustus Welby Pugin, co-architect of the newly built Palace of Westminster, inviting him to design a new house in the fashionable Gothic style. After initial discussions Pugin dropped out of consideration, and Leigh looked elsewhere.

Leigh gave land in nearby South Woodchester to the Congregation of Passionists for the construction of a Roman Catholic church and a monastery for the Passionist brothers. His architect was now Charles Francis Hansom of Bristol, brother of the designer of the Hansom Cab.

By 1854 Leigh returned to the idea of creating a grand Gothic mansion in Woodchester Park, and a new set of designs was prepared by Hansom’s office. By 1859, however, most of the drawings were being produced by Hansom’s assistant Benjamin Bucknall, who was local to the Stroud area. Bucknall was very young for the responsibility of such a large scheme, being only 21 when he began. However his passion for the spiritual qualities of the purest forms of Gothic architecture led to Leigh entrusting him with the Mansion project. Bucknall was greatly influenced by the French architect and writer, Viollet-le-Duc, whose greatest treatise, the “Dictionnaire Raisonne de L’Architecture Francaise du Xième au XVIème Siecle”, provided a treasure chest of ideas for the young Englishman. Bucknall eventually translated the work into English.

Woodchester is undoubtedly Bucknall’s masterpiece and, even incomplete, illustrates his profound grasp of the medieval Gothic tradition. It is rich in architectural form and details and appears today as an astonishing blend of the domestic and the monastic, with brewery, bakery and laundry cheek-by-jowl with one of the most beautiful private chapels in England. The exact date for the start of building is uncertain, but by 1858 the clock tower had been completed, and by 1866 the main building had been roofed. In its heyday there were over 100 people of varying trades working on the site.

A 1904 Postcard of the Lake William Leigh died in 1873. His son, also William Leigh (known locally as Squire Leigh) did not have his father’s religious vocation and he asked a number of architects, including Bucknall, to give advice about his father’s house. Many schemes were advanced, including recommendations to demolish and rebuild – advice which uncannily echoed A.W. Pugin’s original advice on Spring Park. No scheme was taken up, perhaps because the estate was now considered too small to support the original Mansion and funds for total rebuilding were too scarce. The only work of any significance to be carried out after Leigh’s death was the completion of the Drawing Room for a visit by Cardinal Vaughan in 1894.

The estate remained in the Leigh family until 1938. Vincent Leigh, Squire Leigh’s son, lived in part of the Mansion at the turn of the century whilst his sisters Blanche and Beatrice lived at Scar Hill, the lodge near the main gate. Blanche and Beatrice sold the estate to the Barnwood Trust, who intended to convert the Mansion into a mental home. But the house was somehow, once again, left undisturbed.

American/Canadian Tents in the ParkAfter 1938 the Park and its Mansion had a chequered history. American and Canadian troops used it as a base during the Second World War, constructing pontoon bridges over the lake in preparation for D-Day. In the 1950s the Mansion became a field study centre, but was not altered. After further changes of ownership Stroud District Council bought the Mansion, now classified as a Grade 1 Listed building, to save it from ruin. (English Heritage provided 75% of the £20,000 cost). Emergency repairs costing £30,000 were carried out, again aided by English Heritage. But heritage and conservation organisations considered the Mansion too expensive a project to undertake.

A shell exploding in the lakeIn 1988 the Woodchester Mansion Conservation Group was set up by local people, becoming a Charitable Trust in 1989. In 1992, as The Woodchester Mansion Trust, the new body signed a 99-year lease on the Mansion and 23 acres of pasture. The Trust is repairing the house, preserving it in its unfinished state with regular public access, and provides training in stonemasonry, conservation and architecture, with courses for students and the general public. It is the only on-site training opportunity nationally for students of stonemasonry.

The Heritage Trust has set about the task of raising more than £5 million for repairs to complete its programme of conservation for the Mansion. With the help of an initial Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £815,000, the Trust has been able to complete the first three phases of restoration, including the repair of the Grand Staircase, essential works to the rainwater system and in 2003 the restoration of the West Range and Clock Tower.

 
First Broadcast: 21st June 2003

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